A fellow writer remarked once that my (Tamil) fans remind him of Osama bin Laden’s followers. He meant their fanaticism. I ignored his comment as I thought he is envious — considering the “respect” writers have for each other.
But a recent incident proved my friend’s comment right and portrayed a special trait of the Tamils. I have a reader’s forum in Facebook, in which a fan of mine named Senthil Murugan wrote something which hurt me. He apologised saying that the particular comment was unintentional and he updated his status thus, “Whenever I’m perturbed, an outing followed by a clean tonsure and a dip in the sea would give me a huge relief. It’s not devotion, but a sort of mental rejuvenation. So I went to Thiruchendur, (The god of Thiruchendur is Senthil Murugan) made my hair disappear in thirty seconds and stood with my saffron dhoti in chest deep warm sea water. I then removed my last piece of cloth too, wrapped it around the neck, with the sea as my only drape, wondering — ‘is this how a child would feel in the mother’s womb?’”
I came to my senses when I heard a loud “hey” from a policeman. “Why are you standing there?” He probably thought that I was going to commit suicide. I scrambled to the shore — obviously restoring the cloth on my neck to its right place.
I had this curiosity about the custom of Tamils — piercing their various body parts with metal rods as a sign of gratitude to God. My interest was whetted when I saw people piercing themselves, after my ablution in “Nazhi” well. When I told my interest to the person who pierces people, he replied that it’s not a joke and I should have vowed to God that I would pierce my body. “Just now I vowed…” Hearing my reply he gave me a once-over and recited the norms and conditions. I accepted, paid and after garlanding me, two metal rods were brought. The priest kneaded my hand like a dough for two minutes and struck hard and in a nano second, before I could come out of that shock he pierced the rod in my arm. I felt the pain of the blow more than the pierce. When the process was repeated in the other hand, I thought, “Why see this torment in a negative way?” It sort of comforted me in that depressing mood emerged due to my stupid comment which had hurt my guru. Without harming others, when somebody gets pleasure out of tormenting himself, there, I think, the torment becomes positive.
Meanwhile, the priest smeared sacred ash on the gash and exclaimed, “He’s silent.
Think he’s in trance! Arohara!!”
After killing the asura, when Lord Subramanya performed a puja as an act of atonement, he invoked a sacred watershed called Skandha Pushkarini, which is now called Nazhi well. With a width of one square foot, the water of this well tastes sweet, despite being present in the beach and is considered an elixir.
I remember a totally opposite incident. When I had been to an S&M club in Paris, I saw many iron instruments which gave a feeling of entering into an ironsmith’s shop.
Torturing oneself for the sake of their beloved exists in many cultures, while it’s more prevalent in Tamil Nadu. Once a journalist invited me to his office to show a bottle containing a thumb and a letter from the person whose thumb it was requesting the journalist to deliver that “tribute” to his beloved actor. In another incident, a man chopped his tongue and tossed it in a temple’s “Hundi” praying for his leader’s victory in elections.
But when these incidents happen in the life of an artist it acquires an epic proportion. Take the example of Van Gogh cutting his ear off for a girl and Werner Herzog, one of my favourite directors, walked from Paris to Munich, in 1974 winter with just a backpack, when the doctors told that his friend Lotte Eisner in Paris was terribly sick and counting her days. He had documented his three-week journey in his book Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris 23 November-14 December 1974. He met Eisner in Paris. Eisner died 10 years later.
December 23, 2006: My friend and I were strolling in Champs Elysées in Paris. I had to leave for Chennai in two days because I was totally broke. I was feeling distraught that I wouldn’t be able to stay for the New Year celebration in Champs Elysées. My friend said, “Next time don’t forget to visit Lourdes…” and continued after a pause, “but you can visit only if the revered lady of Lourdes calls you.” I decided to make it to Lourdes, which is 660 km from Paris, next time. The next day when I was standing near a Tamil bookstore in La Chappelle, a gentleman whom I did not know invited me to his place for a week. When I told him my status, he postponed the date of my departure and sponsored me to his place, Toulouse, which is close to Lourdes. That Christmas I was genuflecting in the altar of the Lady of Lourdes. I also brought home the sacred water of Lourdes, which they say has healing powers.
Charu Nivedita is a post-modern Tamil writer based in Chennai. His magnum opus, Zero Degree, is considered one of the best in trangressive fiction.